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A Remedy for Offside Reviews

June 23, 2024, 9:08 AM ET [4 Comments]
Paul Stewart
Blogger •Former NHL Referee • RSSArchiveCONTACT
My former boss and mentor, the late John McCauley, was a wise man. Whenever I puzzled over a certain rule and how to apply it real-life context on the ice, he would say, "Stewy, why does this rule exist in the first place?"

The answer usually boiled down to preventing one team from gaining an unfair advantage or putting an opponent at an unfair disadvantage. When that was the PRACTICAL effect of something that happened on the ice in the official's judgment, it is appropriate to blow the whistle. When it did not affect a play, keep play going.

That, folks, is the very essence of good officiating. It's knowing the rules thoroughly but also having the hockey sense to apply the spirit by which they're intended.

Unfortunately, there are no more John McCauleys or John Ashleys or Frank Udvaris around to empower officials. What we have now is too much officiating out of fear, too little focus on ensuring ideal positioning, and way too much reliance on replay to "fix calls". We lose the proverbial forest for the trees.

In hockey, WHY is there an offside rule? It exists to keep the attacking team honest. A million years ago, when Vince McMahon Jr. briefly owned the Cape Cod Buccaneers, he had ideas that would have turned hockey into an oversized pinball game with fights. He thought the puck should be playable anywhere with no whistles for offside or icing. Those ideas were instantly -- and correctly -- shot down by the league and the other owners. That's not hockey.

On the flip side, the intention of offside was NEVER to kill plays -- and take otherwise perfectly good goals off the board on a coach's challenge -- if a frame-by-frame reply shows the puck/an attacker's skate just a hair offside. In fact, these were never even controversial plays.

Gary Bettman said it himself in 2017 regarding why the coach's challenge was created.

“What was intended with the coach’s challenge was to address the glaring instance where an official didn’t see something that took place,” the commissioner said.

Precisely. No one wants a situation such as the one in Game Six of the 1980 Stanley Cup Final when linesman Leon Stickle did not see a clear-cut offside that directly led to a first period New York Islanders goal. The game eventually went to OT, where the Islanders won the Stanley Cup. Thirty two years later, the Philadelphia Flyers (the same team that came out on the short end of the 1980 series) started a successful comeback in Game One of a playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins on a similarly missed offside.

Without question, this sort of situation where a blatantly off-side play directly leads to a goal should be subject to a review to ensure a correct call. The problem, however, is the coach's challenge can be back-timed to whatever point the puck first entered the offensive zone even if it had zero to do with an eventual goal. If the play is offside by the letter of the law, which includes one skate being over the blueline and a second skate that would be onside if in contact with the ice being a fraction of an inch off the ice and the player not bringing the puck into the zone with control of the puck at the time it completely crosses the blueline, then the rest of the play MUST be wiped out.

In the case of Game 6 of the 2024 Stanley Cup, the play in question was a would-be Florida goal off a rush where freeze frames from certain angles showed an ever-so-slight offside entry. I did not feel it was sufficiently conclusive to overturn a goal. Instead of an immediate response to an Edmonton goal with a Florida goal 10 seconds later to make it a 2-1 game, the Oilers caught a huge break.

I'm all in favor of keeping replay to prevent "Stickle" types of plays where a clear-cut offside is missed and it results in a goal. But, to me, the remedy is not frame-by-frame replay. Rather, it's full-speed replay. If the replay crew can conclusively determine on a game-speed replay that a play was offside, the onside ruling on the ice should be overturned. If, however, we need freeze frames from various vantage points to come up with a conclusive ruling, I think it goes against the intention of the rule.

Basically, the "hair offside" goal/no goal challenge has become the new "toe in the crease", where we're looking for a miniscule infraction as a means to disallow a goal. Eliminating the toe-in-the-crease reviews was a wise decision by the NHL. When was the last time a team cried foul because of an attacker's skate being ever-so-slightly in the paint but otherwise a non-factor in a goal being scored? Not since the change.

As for offside plays -- with the key exception of plays since the 1980 "Stickle" miscue or Daniel Briere being blatantly offside to receive a stretch pass in a pivotal play in the 2012 Eastern Cofnerence Quarterfinal -- how many ever-so-slight offisdes were never brought up pre-challenge and got instantly forgotten even when a goal was scored moments later?

Even today, let's say a BLANTANT offside is missed, but there's no goal? We don't review those and run back the clock several seconds. Thank goodness we don't. Yet it was still a missed offside.

What I am saying is this: If a replay crew can watch a play at full speed and detect a missed offside, by all means take the goal off the board. If not, don't hold up the game for several minutes, searching and searching for that one freeze frame from the perfect angle.
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